Sunday, November 18, 2007

Rainer Maria Rilke: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is the only novel written by Rilke. Actually calling it a novel will actually be a little confusing. The keyword here is "notebooks" which defines the structural principle behind this prose work. It is not even a diary though it does start off as if it were a set of diary entries - a set of disjointed entries capturing experiences, thoughts and moods of the central character. Malte Laurids Brigge is an aspiring poet from Denmark who is living in Paris. The initial section of the book records his impressions of the city life which he find unrelentingly grim. Indeed some of the passages are the best I have read about the urban misery and the sense of desolation felt by individuals who find themselves adrift in large, indifferent and inhuman cosmopolis. Like all young poets Brigge also worries about the kind of relationship an ideal poet should have with the reality and the world around him. How should one balance the need for solitude and yet be able to immerse oneself in the world in order to gain experience so that it can be transformed into poetry - in other words how to manage the apparent conflict between "absolute inwardness" and being receptive to the outside material world.

This part of the book where Brigge muses about these things is the most interesting and the easiest to read. Unfortunately this covers only a brief section of the book. In much of the later parts of the book Malte Writes about his family history bringing in narratives and stories from Nordic history and mythologies. I was somewhat lost after a while and couldn't really follow what was going on. The book had a lot of extensive notes towards the end but I was too tired to look everything up. Still it is far from being a tedious read. The prose style is always remarkable, full of unexpected comparisons and startling thoughts which will throw even the most indifferent and bored reader off-kilter and make him sit back and take notice. Most of these thoughts are about Death which is a recurring motif and a running theme throughout the book. Brigge has a whole new and complete theory of death. I will post an extract about it later. His conception of death is somewhat pseudo-mystical in the sense the he sees it as an integral part of life itself and not a negation. The emphasis is on the concept of an individual and personal death. The book contains quite a few examples of people struggling to come to terms with their and other people's deaths. Some are full of fear and completely unprepared while others accept death as completely natural and unique. Brigge doesn't approve one over the another. I think the point is that in the end what counts is the "personal" and "unique" death and Brigge thinks that every person should be entitled to it. What he disapproves is the impersonal and mass deaths in the public hospitals and the kind of death poor and destitute people submit to.

In short a very challenging and difficult book and like most challenging and difficult books, very rewarding too. First fifty or so pages are outstanding in whichever way one looks at it, absolutely must read for anybody interested in Rilke's poetry or in anybody's poetry for that matter. Reading the rest and making sense of it will take quite an effort however. I was looking for some nice essays, reviews or reading guides about the book on the internet but couldn't find any. Very disappointing.

1 comment:

Jigar said...

Hi. I am new to Rilke. In fact, new to poetry in general. But I enjoy books that are meditative, self-musing, personal and blow the ideas to universal level. I enjoy European writers for this perticular trait. I have recently finished reading two such books: Klima's 'no sanits or angels' and Pessoa's 'book of disquiet'. Your blog entry has only increased my hunger for more such stuff!